You Can't Go Home Again

Trapped, in high gear, on Darwin's endless highway

The world of science delivered a report last week that I'm told rocked some people's worlds. It appeared as a big, bold headline on my favorite science magazine website. The four words still reverberate in my brain: "Evolution Cannot Go Backward."

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in cooperation with the University of Oregon, released the results of their startling find, amid significant fanfare at least in anthropological circles. Evolution, it turns out, is a one-way street. Once a gene morphs into some new state, the road back becomes permanently blocked.

The discomforting surprise for me was that, prior to this research, some folks apparently feared evolution might reverse itself.

I had never, in my wildest fantasies, imagined such a scenario: Darwin's grand discovery performing a 180.

To think this long, arduous, painful haul to our highly enlightened state (see Glenn Beck) would do an about-face: Can anyone imagine a more heartbreaking letdown? All that effort, all those advances, for what, just to return to the swamp? Who would have the guts to play messenger for that report? What positive spin could one put on it ("Folks, we're headin' home")?

The day that news like this arrived would be the day we'd know for certain there's a God, just not a real healthy one—a deranged prankster of sorts or a toddler with a play toy.

We need not fear this now, however. It's ever onward for all of us—sails straining toward a more complex and sophisticated future.

As a boy I used to look at that familiar illustration showing the stages of man and assume the upright, normal-looking fellow at the end was the final chapter. Not only was I ignorant of the unstoppable progress of evolution, I couldn't know what discoveries awaited us in the 21st century; that evolution is not only continuing but speeding up. Anthropologists now say that if evolution had always moved at the speed it's moving today, the difference between modern humans and chimps would be 160 times greater than it is right now. The pace of change accelerated 40,000 years ago, picked up even more steam 10,000 years ago, and now is really putting the pedal to the metal.

What does that mean for our future? Can anyone conjure up the next image soon to stand to the right of our naked, normal-looking man?

I read in a book years ago that, as we evolve further, our brains will grow larger and our skulls will expand to accommodate the ballooning gray matter. In the process we'll develop disproportionately large noggins. I also read we'll become more and more hairless, and our bodies, below the neck, will shrink due to technology handling all the heavy lifting. What do you have when you put all those features together—the Hollywood image of your average alien, that's what.

Coincidence? No, those guys really are a few steps ahead of us.

I realize there are people out there who think this evolution business is nothing but a bucket-load of hooey, and not just because it tosses a barge wrench into those Old Testament stories. People are just plain uncomfortable with the notion of man being as unattractive as he once was, and as unattractive as he's going to become. They think if a God were truly the instigator of some evolution program he'd tend to want to call it quits after the formation of a Brad and Angelina. There'd be too great a temptation to just hit the pause button and say, "Voilà."

I'm no Mensa member, but I have to confess a pretty strong belief that this Darwin fellow was on to something. I have a sneaking suspicion that this evolution stuff may actually be legit. Go to an average zoo, for instance, and watch the female gorilla with her newborn; then go to a maternity ward and witness the same scene with a woman and her baby. If you discard the differences in body hair (and let's hope there are some), if you forget about skull shape and contrasting physiques, if you focus solely on the eyes, you'll stare dumbstruck. Those warm, deep, loving windows to the soul will shine with equally sublime beauty, and you will know, in no uncertain terms, that we were once not only cousins but siblings.

I realize this approach isn't terribly scientific, but then again I don't completely trust scientists. I've always been more of a strong gut-feeling type of guy. 

 
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